New Year in Northumberland

Now that my mother’s stories are set in England, and deal with her own life as a child with Carol in her role as mother, it is time to introduce Cynthia’s first letter- not to her mother (although she is the person who preserved envelope and letter), but to Santa Claus! This is a bit strange in itself, since I would have thought an English child would have written to Father Christmas rather than Santa, but she did have an American influence- her Simmons cousins, Milly, Marguerite, and Mona, who had spent the war with her in St Vincent, at some time had joined their father in New York, and grew up on Long Island. This letter from an 8-or-9-year-old Cynthia is, I hope, legible enough not to need a transcription.

NEW YEAR IN NORTHUMBERLAND

by Cynthia Costain

Children growing up in Northumberland had one big advantage over children in most of the rest of England. We celebrated an English Christmas and a Scottish New Year.

At Christmas, there was none of this grudging John Knox attitude. It was the season to be merry, with presents and Father Christmas; delicious secrets hidden in cupboards; expeditions to the country for holly and mistletoe to decorate each room. Noontime dinner on Christmas day was full of delectable smells and feasting a fat stuffed roast capon (as we were a small family) and the fun of blazing Christmas pudding with the suspense of seeing whether I would get the silver ring this year or the threepenny bit or horrors! the silver thimble. Tea at five o’clock brought friends to share the large iced Christmas cake and little warm mince pies. We younger ones ate and giggled, compared presents and began the task of eating as many mince pies as we could in between Christmas and New Year each one consumed counted as a happy month in the coming year.

New Year was quite different. No presents or special goodies, but the mystique of STAYING UP TO SEE THE NEW YEAR IN. This longed-for event was not achieved by being good or behaving well in church, it involved pleading each year, “Can’t I stay up? I’m seven eight- nine now,” until at last, parents tired of nagging would say, “All right, this year you can See In The New Year.”

The best family party was at the Sheedys’: an Irish father, an exuberant North Country mother, two sons of my age, and various young Irish uncles, as well as a selection of neighbouring families. The most important person in the whole ceremony was Grandfather. Mrs. Sheedy’s father was a fine impressive old gentlemen with white hair and a beautiful white beard a cross between Father Christmas and King Edward VII. We would all gather at the Sheedys’ house about eleven o’clock, the adults making polite conversation, and the children being as quiet as possible so that we could eavesdrop on our elders. As midnight drew nearer, Grandfather, already in his best black suit with white shirt, stiff collar, and black silk stock, would put on his overcoat with the velvet collar and his hard square topped hat, tuck his scarf around his neck, put on his gloves, and take his silver topped cane. In the meanwhile, Mrs. Sheedy would carefully slip into his pocket a piece of coal, a twist of paper holding salt and a small flask of whiskey.

We all gathered to see him march down the garden path, out the gate and down the dark road. No need in that shipbuilding city to watch the clock for midnight. As the minutes crept by we listened and then up and down the river for miles around the sirens howled and the ships’ hooters blew as Tyneside welcomed in the New Year. There would be a great knocking at the front door, and everyone would rush to see Grandfather enter the house as the First Foot over the doorstep to bring good luck to the house and all within. With the coal for warmth throughout the year, salt for food, and whiskey for drink he would call a Happy New Year to all and set out to kiss all the ladies. Traditionally the First Foot must be a dark man, and presumably Grandfather had once had dark hair, since he remained the perfect bringer of good luck.

Then what hugging and kissing and exchanging of good wishes, from husbands to wives, mothers to sons and adults to children! 1 can’t remember that we children kissed each other perhaps we did. Glasses were filled with port or sherry and each child had a wineglass of Stone’s Ginger Wine glowing ruby red, with a lovely hot sweet burny taste. Then the toasts and speeches and refilling of the glasses, until at last the piano would begin to play and everyone would gather round to sing. The favourite music was “The Student’s Songbook”, a fat compendium of songs from all over the world, from Annie Laurie to John Brown’s Body and on to Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. People would call for their favourites, from hymns to the local anthem, The Blaydon Races. I remember a dashing ditty about a railway journey which began “Riding down to Bangor on an eastern train” and ended with “a dainty little earring sparkled in that naughty student’s beard”.

After a while the ladies would retire to help Mrs. Sheedy bring in sandwiches and tea and the remains of the Christmas cake. This was the time for the children to collect their food supplies and fade away as much as possible under the piano, behind Grandfather’s chair, or in the entrance hall among the coats, while the singing continued and the laughter and chatter rose. This was our way of holding back as long as possible those dread words, “Well, it’s about time to go home… Where are those children?”

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

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